Indian Women's Voice Now Heard Through Panchayats

By Dr. Hrusikesh Panda
The author is Additional Secretary, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, Govt. of India

ADDITIONAL SECRETARY , MOPR, DR HRUSIKESH PANDA ADDRSSING THE MAHILA GRAM SABHA AT GUAMAL, BHADRAK , ODISHA
ADDITIONAL SECRETARY , MOPR, DR HRUSIKESH PANDA ADDRSSING THE MAHILA GRAM SABHA AT GUAMAL, BHADRAK , ODISHA

New Delhi, Jan 16, 2013 (Washington Bangla Radio / PIB India) Gram Sabha is the deepest form of Decentralized Governance where every voter of a Gram Panchayat is a member and can participate in decision making, approval of plans, rejection of plans and selection of beneficiaries.

The Gram Sabha is being increasingly modeled to be the ideal institution for social audit.  The reason is that the Gram Sabha consists of people who are beneficiaries of schemes and programs and are at the spot when a program or a work is taken up and are the best judges of the quality of implementation of schemes and works.  Therefore, Gram Sabha should be the best agency for social audit.

Women of India: FIRST EVER MAHILA GRAM SABHA ON FEMALE FETICIDE AND ADVERSE CHILD SEX RATIO HELD AT BIBIPUR VILLAGE, JIND , HARYANA
FIRST EVER MAHILA GRAM SABHA ON FEMALE FETICIDE AND ADVERSE CHILD SEX RATIO HELD AT BIBIPUR VILLAGE, JIND , HARYANA

Mahila Gram Sabha in progress at Sarangi village, Jhabua, M.P
Mahila Gram Sabha in progress at Sarangi village, Jhabua, M.P

A problem with Gram Sabha has been that in many places, the attendance is poor.  To begin with the agenda items are often limited to works taken up by the Panchayats and therefore many people have no interest to participate in the meeting.  There is the question of wage loss for a day.  In order to increase participation in Gram Sabha, it should have the time and wherewithal to take up a wide range of subjects.  These subjects should be of interest to the majority of population.  Examples of such subjects are: primary schools, mid-day meals, drinking water systems, sewerage systems, primary health care, child and mother care programs including Anganwadi and immunization.  Most of these problems are faced by women and not by men in the villages.  Therefore, these subjects can be discussed only if there is sufficient participation of women.

Workshop on Women Friendly Panchayat in Mararikulam, Alappuzha District, Kerala
Workshop on Women Friendly Panchayat in Mararikulam, Alappuzha District, Kerala

Another set of subjects which affect women are cash income for management of household and food security.  Public Distribution System is one part of food security.  The other part of food is cash security, economic activities like agriculture, horticulture, dairy, fisheries, hand-looms etc.  Some of the activities incidental to these activities are irrigation, land management and soil conservation.  Again, effective supervision over these programs by Gram Sabha is possible only if women participate sufficiently in the Gram Sabha meetings since they are witness to these activities and have to manage food security more often than men.  It has not always been possible to ensure women’s participation in many parts of the country where women do not speak before men.  Sometimes, the men would like women to attend to household chores and not attend meetings which they would consider wastage of time.  As a result of this vicious cycle, participation of women becomes negligible in Gram Sabha meetings, Gram Sabha does not take up issues which affect most of the people, and then the participation further declines.  To stem these problems, Ministry of Panchayati Raj has been taking up with the States to have special Gram Sabha meetings with a wider range of subjects.

Special Gram Sabha meetings to discuss nutrition were held in August, 2011 and again in August, 2012.  These meetings were attended by functionaries in-charge of women and child care, health, sanitation, drinking water, PDS, education, mid-day meal, agriculture, horticulture, dairy and fisheries.  These meetings have seen greater participation of women and have also taken up issues which benefit a larger number of people and particularly women.

Workshop on Women Friendly Panchayat in Mararikulam, Alappuzha District, Kerala
Workshop on Women Friendly Panchayat in Mararikulam, Alappuzha District, Kerala

During October, 2012 special Gram Sabha meetings relating to women were held.  The issues which had been flagged are Anganwadi Centres, health, sanitation, drinking water, prevention of violence against women & children, prevention of dowry and female foeticide.  States have also been advised to have separate quorum for women in Gram Sabha in order to raise the attendance as well as participation of women.  Among others, the States of Haryana, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Tripura, Rajasthan and Odisha have responded on special Gram Sabha on women issue.

MAHILA GRAM SABHA ON GENDER ISSUES AT GUAMAL, BHADRAK , ODISHA
MAHILA GRAM SABHA ON GENDER ISSUES AT GUAMAL, BHADRAK , ODISHA

However, in addition to these efforts, it is necessary to have Mahila Gram Sabha meetings for various reasons.  First, in a Mahila Gram Sabha meeting, presence and participation of women is much better than in a Gram Sabha meeting.  Second, the Mahila Gram Sabha meeting also takes up more sensitive topics such as dowry, domestic violence, substance abuse, violence in public space, female foeticide and trafficking of women and children. Some States like Maharashtra have been holding Mahila Gram Sabha meetings before Gram Sabha meetings.  We have been advising the States to constitute Mahila Sabha meetings in addition to Gram Sabha meetings.  Recently, States like Rajasthan, Odisha and Karnataka have notified for holding Mahila Sabha meetings.  Our experience shows that with increased participation of women in Gram Sabha meetings or Mahila Sabha meetings, for example, expenditure from MGNREGS is going for activities like irrigation and creation of water bodies which helps in raising income through agriculture, horticulture and fodder and also helps in improving drinking water supply.

MAHILA GRAM SABHA ON GENDER ISSUES AT GUAMAL, BHADRAK , ODISHA
MAHILA GRAM SABHA ON GENDER ISSUES AT GUAMAL, BHADRAK , ODISHA

The Ministry of Panchayati Raj had advised the States to have Special Gram Sabha and Mahila Sabha meetings to discuss gender issues with special focus on  female foeticide and the social impact of having a larger number of men than women. It was  advised that these meetings should also be organized to discuss the issue of adverse Child Sex Ratio and female foeticide.  In the areas where Mahila Sabhas has not been constituted, they should be constituted and Mahila Sabhas should take up the matter of CSR.  Since the monitoring committee of Anganwadis have been put under the control of Panchayat / Ward member and Village Health Sanitation and Nutrition Committee (VHSNC) has been made a sub-committee of GP, Panchayats will have access to information on registration of pregnant mothers, birth of boys and girls and IMR/CMR. Therefore, Panchayats will be able to monitor sex ratio at birth and prenatal sex determination. I have attended several meetings of Gram Sabhas, Mahila Sabhas and workshops of elected Panchayat Representatives and seen how women are able to take up the problem of female foetid upfront, discover the real reasons behind this mindset (violence against women in public space is a major concern) and how to face this.

Accordingly, Special Gram Sabha on gender issues were held in various states.  In Haryana, in a program 1500 women participated, at Julana Block on 1st September 2012.  This program was represented by people from seven Gram Panchayats.  They took a solemn oath that they will make all efforts support to eradicate the social menace of female feticide. The women of these seven villages   largely discussed the impact of having a lower number of women on public order and the well being of adults.

Special Gram Sabha on Gender issues was organized by Namunaghar, South Andaman on 30th October 2012 which was attended by 30 women and young girls. Among other issues, prevention of violence against women and children, prevention of dowry and female feticide were discussed.  During this meeting, the people decided to organize Mahila Sabha to discuss women issues was emphasized.

A meeting in Mararikula South Gram Panchayat, district Alappuzha, Kerala was organized on 5th March, 2012 on “Mapping of violence against women”. About 2000 people, most of them women, attended this meeting. During this meeting, the findings and recommendations of the Mararikula South Gram Panchayat regarding crimes against women were discussed.  This Gram Panchayat had undertaken a mapping of crimes against women, particularly in public space and educational institutions.  The Gram Sabha found a few solutions too : keeping men engaged in gainful activities, particularly marine fishermen who remain inactive during their stay on shores, ensuring cash earning activities for women like dairy, establishing helplines and, providing counseling in schools to address confidence building measures so that students are able to stand up to violence. The Government of Kerala has adopted this concept and is in the process of replicating this in the state under a program called NIRBHAYA.

The reservation for women among the elected representatives to Panchayats has increased the number of elected women representatives after 1993.  This has helped in great extent in increasing political leadership of women in Local Self Government.  The efforts of the Gram Sabha to take up issues which affect women and the constitution of Mahila Sabhas are empowering of women irrespective of whether they are elected or not.  The enthusiasm of women in Mahila Gram Sabha meetings in some parts of the country where their participation earlier had been next to nothing is something to be seen to be believed.

(PIB Feature.)